Interview with Rick Rowbotham
Rick has over 35 years experience in the field of Landscape Architecture. In 1980 Rick worked under the direction of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe before establishing his own practice Urban Red in 1983. His keen interests in a design led artisan culture prompted the formation and management of a design and build construction company that now operates in the UK. In the late 1980’s Rick formed a practice based in Kuala Lumpur to manage projects throughout the Pacific Rim. He now works on various projects throughout the world expanding his role beyond the traditional definition of Landscape Architecture.
I caught up with Rick early in 2013 and then again this year to get an overview on his experiences working as a Landscape Architect and the diverse roles he has played:
Initial interview: Feb 2013
Why did you pursue a career in landscape architecture?
I wanted to be an artist actually. I was persuaded by my parents that I would never make a living as an artist, and I was interested in the natural sciences. So, I thought, what can I do to bring the combination? In the 70s, landscape architecture was not really talked about. But I went to a career advisory board, and they suggested landscape architecture.
I always had a practical side to me so I’ve never been shy in understanding how materials worked. I had this intuitive interest, and I was able to focus that into my career. I became very interested in the Architectural and technical side of landscape architecture which was much more akin to architecture rather than landscape architecture.
Where do you think, in the coming years, has the most potential for landscape architecture?
Well, I think China springs to mind immediately. Personally I feel it’s a difficult environment to work in. Culturally and from the point of view of economic management, the way they work there is quite different from the way we work in the UK. Aspirations there are different to here.
We can compete on the creative side, but we can’t compete when it comes to manpower and churning the work out. However what we can do is to bring in the creative angle and unlock the initial problems when forming a new concept design.
I there are fewer preconceptions in China about how design should be. If you’re in competition with another developer or neighbor or city, the more extravagant, the more esoteric the project becomes, the better.
How was your experience establishing a practice in Malaysia?
It’s not a big market but it’s a market where little gems can grow. That’s my feeling. When I was working in KL In the late 1980’s there was a tremendous problem with corruption.
Political power and economic power was vested in different factions in society. In broad terms, the Chinese are the economic engine, most industrious and most prolific. And the indigenous Malay are much more to involved with the political aspect. I think that’s festered in the way the constitution works as well. If you’re not born and bred there and you’re not Malay it’s difficult to get into a seat of power. This was my feelings and recollection in the 1980’s.
How many years did you have a practice in Malaysia?
Ten years. It was an economic disaster for us. We lost money, but the experience was second to none. It was particularly good for me because I went back to my home, my birth place in Sarawak, and went to see people that my father still knew. I’m lucky for that, but we didn’t make any money there.
Do you think there’s too much legislation in UK preventing innovative design?
I think there are a number of points here. Firstly is the Planning regulations, which has hugely overloaded the planning system. A lot of decision-making is left to the inquiry process which, in effect, uses up the planning process. Planners cannot keep up or are unwilling to keep up with the amount of demand on their local systems. When decided through inquiry is can a long painful process.
The second point is that there are a lot of constraints in terms of building codes and regulations, which are a good thing on one hand, but they are incredibly stifling in another because they do repress the creative urge and the creative angle on all process.
The third point is the health and safety aspect which is a good thing because it saves lives in the industry, but it’s almost gone too far. I think it’s cleaned up the building industry, and that’s a good thing, but it really has slowed up the business building here in the UK. This is really a transitional process as people adjust to new ways of doing things (for the better when it comes to safety) the system is now bedded in and moving faster.
I think actually, more than Europe, in the UK, extensively, we’re very conservative about what we really like, and it’s quite difficult to push the boundaries in design terms. Whereas, I think in continental Europe, is a little more relaxed about what they can do, and in the Asia Pacific is also the same.
China, the Middle East and most the Soviet countries have some awful legacies of really dreadful design, but every now and again, a little gem comes to light and you can see the opening of minds and possibilities which I think is to be encouraged. In this way I wish the UK would be less conservative.
What is your most rewarding project to date?
I started my career here in Guildford with Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe. In the late 70s, early 80s, he was the principal designer, landscape architect for Sutton Place, which was owned by an American, Stanley Seeger who was a wealthy industrialist, great collector, patron of the arts, and commissioned Jellicoe. The scheme was a tremendous introduction to the world of architecture for me. So, that was very rewarding, and I’d say the legacy’s still there today.
Also a lot of my rewarding work was in the Docklands, the London Docklands. Again, that was a huge restoration project, revival of a huge industrial derelict part of London, the docks (The Isle of Dogs around Canary Wharf), in the 80s. It was interesting from the point that there was a lot of money to be spent, new ideas to be explored in the public and urban realm.
What do you believe the most important skills for new graduates are?
All the way through my career I have employed young graduates who didn’t know much about the elemental aspects of the discipline they were operating in. They didn’t know anything about plants or materials, and I always implored them to go out there and build practically. Do your own thing, whatever it is. Go and visit the National Garden and learn your plants. Just get knowledge of it.
Obviously, you’ve got your creative side which is something else. However there nothing worse than somebody who comes in to a building site who knows absolutely nothing about the building process.
Also I think practices should have the capability of a workshop-type environment where they’re not afraid to experiment with materials and involve new graduates. Build models, get the real materials together, and see how they work.
I’m all for that even if the practices can’t afford it. There ought to be schemes where they can share machines which can help inform the design process. They need to be much more inquisitive, pushing the boundaries in technology and getting to grips with what’s possible. That’s actually a very exciting part of the profession.
Also if they have a particular passion for anything, get really professional about it. Become an expert and sell it as your main specialty, and with that comes better value. Find a way out of the maelstrom of generality of the design practice (which is I think can be soul destroying) and go into areas where you could excel and be recognized.
Could you give an introduction to you project in Ukraine and what has happened there.
Izolatsia is a foundation for the culture and the arts, primarily contemporary art, developed on a site of approximately 20 hectares. It’s really reviving a derelict industrial site which is polluted. It’s decrepit, actually. Some buildings had to come down, some are restored, and some are left alone. It’s a very broad brief, and there aren’t very many examples of this sort of initiative in Ukraine so it’s a trailblazer, and we’re getting quite a lot of publicity.
The client wanted British landscape architects to get involved in the master plan, and they came to London and interviewed several practices, one of which was Form Associates. Because of our connection with art and architecture, they selected us, we were taken out to Ukraine and shown the site and it developed from there.
We’re chasing ourselves in the sense that the master plan’s being developed, but, in parallel, we’re also developing buildings, restoring buildings that we know will have an established use.
I find it refreshing from the sense that, from the point of view that you don’t have this overwhelming burden of legislation hanging over you which I think docks projects here in the UK.
Can you give an update on Izolatzia?
The former Izolatysia site is currently a Russian stronghold, it was taken over by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.?We have moved to Kiev and. found a new sight in the old Kiev docks. Because of my experience from designing the London docklands I knew there was going to be something there. We found an existing creative community already using part of the Docklands and have found good potential for growth. Were in there at the moment and would like to develop the site further that if I can persuade the founder.
Kiev is more cosmopolitan and we are new kids on the block. If we can invest there we will put our roots down. But the big questions remain, what will happen with the former site at Donetsk. If the Ukrainian army pushes through we may be able to get it back. However the founder does not want to go back and face the mess of stolen and destroyed artwork and equipment etc. So we probably will not be able to go back for another for 3-4 yrs. Another possibility is that if a full scale fight breaks out, the army will bomb the site destroying it completely.
What is your current role in all of this?
I’m on the board of the foundation. I have an overview of the whole process and I’m not really working as a Landscape Architect at this point. However this suits me as I am more interested in now developing a diverse skill set. It really goes to the heart of why I was interested in Landscape Architecture in the first place: A holistic view of the environment. I have always been interested in the overall response to a project. It’s just ironic Ukraine gave me that opportunity to develop these skills which help me work towards my personal ambition is to become a developer, designing and building the built environment holistically.
You also won gold at Chelsea garden show this year, how did you find that experience?
We entered under LDC, my company based in Guildford run by my business partner based here. We were awarded “Best Fresh Garden”, “People’s Choice” and a “Gold Medal” for “The Mind’s Eye” garden designed for the RNIB in partnership with Countryside. My business partner Nigel Prince with help from me drove the project whilst 2 young Landscape Architects, Alex Frazier and Tom Prince fronted it. It was quite manic but a good experience. We had about 5 months to complete the design, build, test and fabricate offsite and then bring everything onsite.
Further information on the award winning garden can be found here:
What does the future hold for you?
My final ambition is to start painting. My brother and sister in law are immensely successful artists and I am quite envious. It is something I have always wanted to pursue. Also as previously mentioned I would like to become a small time developer to realize my ethos, a holistic approach that brings together all my experience across disciplines. The trick is getting a margin of capital between you and reality. Building up collateral to allow yourself some space to take risks. Now, I have a bit of margin so I will try and pursue those goals.
Interviewer: Andrew Slater